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December 17, 2016

In this holy (holiday) season, my thoughts not surprisingly turn to clerical detectives.  I’ve always enjoyed reading about different religions, and a great way for fans of the mystery novel to do this is via detective stories featuring clergy who have a propensity for solving crimes.  And what better time of year to do this than during the cold, snowy days of winter, when reading is a perfect way to spend an afternoon or evening.

One of the first clerical detectives I read about was Reverend C. P. Randollph, featured in several novels by Charles Merrill Smith.  It’s been years since I’ve read the Reverend Randollph mysteries, a series that ended with the death of its author in 1986, but I remember being struck by the kindness and compassion of this protagonist, who seemed to embody the best of his Methodist faith and that of the author, himself a clergyman.

Another fictional Protestant minister, this one contemporary, is the Reverend Claire Fergusson.  Julia Spencer-Fleming’s heroine lives in upstate New York, in a small town ominously named Millers Kill (although in Dutch the word kill, less threateningly, means creek).  I suggest starting this outstanding series from the beginning so you can follow Claire’s path as she takes her place as the first female minister in the town’s Episcopal church.  The titles of the series’ first two books, In the Bleak Midwinter and A Fountain Filled with Blood, will give readers a hint that hers is not an easy road.

Moving to Catholicism, an old favorite of mine is Brother Cadfael in 12th-century England.  Written by Ellis Peters, these novels bring to life the Middle Ages, its wars, culture, and Christian faith.  Brother Cadfael, a soldier before he became a monk, is a delightful character with a scientific mind, years ahead of his time, with a great deal of worldly wisdom that helps him find those who are guilty.

The most famous Jewish detective who is a member of the clergy is probably Rabbi David Small, leader of the Conservative synagogue in Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts.  The eleven mysteries featuring Rabbi Small were written by Harry Kemelman, a former Boston school teacher.  Although he’s a husband and father to two children, we mainly see him as the religious leader of his congregation.  The word “rabbi” in Hebrew means teacher, and Rabbi Small strives to teach his congregants via the Torah, the first five books of the Jewish bible, also known as the Old Testament.  There are always a variety of opinions in his synagogue, and various members try in different books in the series to oust the rabbi from his pulpit, but in the end he remains to lead his flock to greater knowledge of their religion and, in his spare time, to solve a crime or two.

A great resource I recommend for readers interested in religious sleuths is Clerical Detectives.  Philip Grosset has compiled a list of over three hundred clergy-related protagonists, including widows of religious men and laypeople who are particularly pious; some of these books are contemporary, many more are not.  In addition to lists featuring the four clergy I’ve mentioned above, there are dozens of other categories, including ministers (to use a generic word) in the Buddhist, Hindu, Amish, Mithraism, Voodoo, and Druidism practices.  If, like me, you’re not totally familiar with the beliefs of the last three subsets, that’s a good reason to check out this excellent web site.

Happy Holidays and Happy Reading!




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